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Rescuing Dewey

Thumbnail Sketch of Pragmatism William James Pragmatism is a distinctively North American philosophical sensibility. It is practical, oriented to science, realistic about mistakes human beings make, and conceives inquiry as striving for a better answer to a bothersome question. One definition of knowledge is "true belief. Knowledge is a term used only vaguely to describe beliefs about which we are fairly certain or at least very hopeful.

This entails fallibilism with regard to all human knowledge because perfect warrant seems to be unattainable perhaps some logical laws could be said to be perfectly warranted but even this is doubtful to a sufficiently radical empiricist. This point of view is also firmly opposed to foundationalism in epistemology.

Pragmatic naturalism : an introduction | UNIVERSITY OF NAIROBI LIBRARY

Modern philosophy in the manner of Descartes, Locke, or Kant tried to show how what we take to be human knowledge can be conceived as logical consequences of relations between perfectly certain fundamental premises of course, they disagreed about how these basic premises were known. In this way they found a home for every item of human knowledge in a vast structure with a firm foundation. Pragmatism considers this intellectual enterprise utterly vain.

Our situation is less like the inhabitor of a perfectly founded fortress and more like a sailor in a boat who replaces the entire boat plank by leaking plank, as needed. That is, when there is cognitive dissonance we deal with it by trying to figure out a way to assess our beliefs and to adjust the relationships between them. Modern philosophy has, as the twentieth century has unfolded, come to realize that foundationalist epistemology is a philosophical mistake. The rejection of foundationalism right from the beginning of Pragmatism justifies its description as "The Highroad Around Modernism," as Neville puts it in his book of that name.

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Pragmatism is careful to attend to why people believe what they believe and to the way that they believe. The background assumption for its interpretation of human beings is evolutionary biology, which is why pragmatism is so often seen hand in hand with one or another form of naturalism. We simply find ourselves in the world, already with beliefs and already making discoveries and mistakes of judgment. We believe many things because they work for us, either socially because everyone around us believes them or practically because they make sense of our experience.

When we become restless it is because there is a problem that needs solving. Maybe we need to devise ways to catch food, to figure out how to protect ourselves from wild animals, or to design a giant cyclotron. Inquiry in this most general sense has been analyzed by the pragmatists in considerable detail. This analysis yields a unitary theory of inquiry that can be called the "hypothetico-corrective" method.

This method corresponds to common-sense ideas of problem solving. We begin with an idea for a solution to the problem we have noticed and then we try to improve our solution. And so the process continues until the solution we achieve is as good as we want it to be. The "hypothesis" part of the hypothetico-corrective account of inquiry is based on the very simple fact that our entire lives begin somewhere determinate, with many givens. Even as our givenness in life is a kind of large hypothesis, so each solution we try out to a problem is a hypothesis.

The "corrective" part of the hypothetico-corrective account of inquiry is based on the fact that the aim is to try to improve our working hypotheses in every way possible. This, finally, is the meaning of rationality. There are also some approaches that can plausibly be described as naturalistic that are quite self-consciously anti-scientistic.

In particular, there are philosophers who have been influenced by the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein who regard their general approach as naturalistic, though it is just as critical of scientism as it is of traditional metaphysics. This is not to say that Wittgenstein was deliberately making a case for naturalism.

Rather, because of his emphasis on the importance of looking at actual practice, the significance of the wider social context of practices, and the avoidance of a priori theorizing, his work can be seen as having features of naturalism.

Pragmatism and Naturalism

Like G. Moore before him, Wittgenstein argued that the refutation of skeptical hypotheses is not required in order to succeed in making knowledge claims, and that we have knowledge of the external world without first proving that such knowledge is possible. Moreover, Wittgenstein rejected the view that there is some single, global method including the scientific method for arriving at a true account of the world, and his approach is explicitly oriented to honoring the differences between contexts.

This is evident in his discussion of language games, for example. His philosophical explorations are anti-reductionist. They disavow any attempt to capture and explain everything in the terms of some overall theory within one or another special science. He vigorously opposed the attempt to force phenomena to "fit" some preferred theory or vocabulary. Indeed, in some important ways, his work is anti-theoretical without being anti-philosophical. The same might be said of Thomas Reid [] in the eighteenth century. It is also plausible to regard his views as naturalistic in important respects.

One can see this especially in contrast to Kant, for example. If it is appropriate to describe this approach as naturalistic it is because of the ways in which Wittgenstein insisted that philosophical examination should look closely at the facts and should avoid theorizing about them in ways that lead to a large scale reconceiving of them or to postulation of entities, agencies, and processes.

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Very often the truth is disclosed by looking carefully, rather than by discovering something "behind" or distinct from what we encounter in experience. There is not some order of the "really real" or a transcendent order beyond what we meet with in the natural world. Yet, this does not mean that only a narrowly scientific understanding of it is a correct understanding. That sort of view itself would be an example of an overly restrictive approach that misrepresents the world and our understanding of it. In addition, Wittgenstein was especially concerned to understand normative issues such as the normativity involved in the use of concepts and in engaging in various practices without explaining them away or reducing them to something non-normative.

There are important normative issues even in contexts where we are not directly investigating questions concerning values. All sorts of practices, including various kinds of thinking and the use of language, have normative dimensions. Their normativity cannot be reduced to the occurrence of this or that event, or state, or causal process. For example, there may be no specific physical or psychological state or process that underlies or causally explains how a person is able to go on applying a concept to new cases, and to use a term in indefinitely many new situations, and to do so correctly in ways that are understood by others.

That might mean that there is an irreducible normativity involved in the use of concepts and terms. There is nothing metaphysically exotic about that. It does not indicate that there are special normative entities or properties in addition to the practices and activities in question.

Introduction to American Pragmatism

There just is the normative, but natural activity of speaking, understanding, and making judgments. These are altogether familiar to all of us. If we want to understand what makes for the correct use of a term, for example, we should look at the way that it is used rather than look for some other fact or entity underlying its use. There is no special realm of meanings, or a thinking substance that grasps them, or a world of universals outside of space and time that is grasped by thought.

It is noteworthy that Plato understood the forms to be not only real, but normative realities. Many approaches to meaning, to the explication of inference and thought in general, and to the acquisition of concepts that have been influenced by Wittgenstein see Wittgenstein on meaning , are naturalistic in an anti-metaphysical regard and in their close descriptive attention to the actual facts and natural and social contexts of the phenomena at issue. Traditional, central, philosophical debates, such as those between realism and nominalism in regard to universals, are purportedly deflated by Wittgensteinian approaches.

That makes it plausible to regard them as naturalistic in at least a broad sense, though there is a very wide spectrum of Wittgenstein-influenced views and of Wittgenstein interpretation. Many different "-isms" can be interpretively connected to Wittgenstein's work. Some Wittgensteinians and interpreters of Wittgenstein seem to support antirealism and nominalism. Others present views plausibly described as realist, but in a distinctively Wittgensteinian way.

The range of Wittgenstein-influenced views is so wide, in large part, because he refused to be drawn into the use of many of the prevailing formulations of issues. Wittgensteinian approaches have been very influential in the philosophy of social explanation, an area in which there has long been a debate about whether the methods of the natural sciences are appropriate to the kinds of phenomena it is claimed are uniquely encountered in social explanation. This is a place where we can see the breadth of the field of interpretation of naturalism. In one sense, Wittgensteinian approaches are naturalistic, in the ways described.

At the same time, they are decidedly not naturalistic, if by "naturalism" we mean that the categories, concepts, and methods of the natural sciences are the only ones that are needed to explain whatever there is.

There are some affinities between Wittgenstein and some currents in American pragmatism with respect to the emphasis on the importance of the shared, public world for understanding language and the significance of practices. In particular, recent work by Richard Rorty ; has been important in drawing attention to that tradition and reinvigorating pragmatism in a post-Wittgensteinian context.


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His views and others like them have also attracted a great deal of criticism, reinvigorating debates about the interpretation and plausibility of naturalism. At the center of the debate is the issue of whether there are enduring philosophical problems about the nature of reality, and truth, and about value, for example, or just the more concrete, contingent, but still significant problems that individuals and societies encounter in the business of living. As might be expected, many naturalistic thinkers feel discomfort at being grouped with Wittgenstein under the same heading.

They regard his approach as unscientific and as much more permissive in regard to interpretation than more empirically fastidious approaches can accept. Still, it is plausible to regard at least some of Wittgenstein's views as naturalistic even though they constitute a version of naturalism that differs from others in important respects. Ethics is a context in which there are important non-scientistic versions of naturalism.

For example, there are respects in which neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics can be regarded as naturalistic. It does not involve a non-natural source or realm of moral value, as does Kant's ethical theory, or Plato's or Moore's. For Aristotle, judgments of what are goods for a human being are based upon considerations about human capacities, propensities, and the conditions for successful human activity of various kinds.

Thus, while it is not a scientistic conception of human agency or moral value, it also contrasts clearly with many clearly non-naturalistic conceptions of agency and moral value.